Monday, October 03, 2005

Minor celebrity, get me out of here

Back when I worked for the Little Publishing Company on the Hill we were involved in putting on events about the Internet. This was before the dot-com boom, around the time when people knew that the web had potential but didn’t know how to realise it. It was all American gurus with pink hair, professors from NASA and loony Norwegian information specialists. Companies would try to sell technologies that nobody really understood. Unique selling points rarely featured anything to do with the product. Companies would turn up with Lamborghinis and Spice Girl look-a-likes to make themselves known; one woman enlisted the help of her friend Mick Jagger who wafted into our conference and became the most famous person I’ve seen at close quarters.

On occasions my job puts me in front of minor celebrities; Tony Hawks, Nicholas Witchell, Andrew Castle. I also come across senior professionals who seem to receive an even bigger celebrity treatment than Jagger did that day.

We were once visited at the Little Publishing Company by a big cheese from the company’s Dutch parent, we were given various instructions about how we should behave. In our youthful exuberance, we fantasised about running around the building riding a Bernie Clifton style ostrich outfit. In the end, the cheese was rolled in, and out. And nobody but the most important people saw him.

Last week I was at an exhibition, I was talking to someone on the edge of our stand. Behind me there was a flurry of excitement, flash bulbs and chatter. I turned around to see my Chief Executive shaking hands vigorously with a very senior civil servant who had been ushered in from a conference presentation he’d just made. He was a normal looking middle-aged man, surrounded by personal assistants and PR representatives holding clipboards. The photo opportunity over, he was ushered away, his team of six or seven moving as one choreographed unit with him. Assuming he can tie his own shoe laces and hold his winky when going to the toilet, you wander what all these people do. And then you realise; they spend an awful lot of time keeping their teeny weeny niche of responsibility clean.

In a separate incident, a couple of days later, we received a complaint about something that had been printed in our magazine. We’d put the word ‘terrorism’ in the same paragraph as the name of a senior bod in a major defence contractor. A hysterical press officer phoned up demanding a series of actions which would actually serve to draw attention to the piece. I tried to calm her down; I asked whether the bod had seen the piece. She assured me he would be apoplectic if he did. I asked whether it might be possible to talk to the bod himself, perhaps he would see the damage a page long retraction could do; “Further to the minor piece you probably didn’t read last month we would like to assure all readers that Big Defence Company thinks terrorism is bad and that this retraction should not be viewed as a company protesting a little too much”. I wasn’t going to talk to him; didn’t I know who this guy was? I didn’t, I suspected that he was, in essence, a logical and educated man, but to her he was God, someone who would share her panic and disgust.

Working in a big company, it seems, people are assigned jobs which allocate almost a binary set personal of objectives. You must achieve x, if you don’t, you have failed. The equivalent of employing a joiner to do nothing more than hit a nail into wood, if you miss the nail, you’re fired. Don’t think about it, just do it, your job is not to think about how your objectives relate to the real world, that’s someone else’s job. This woman’s whole job was to ensure that her company is only seen in a positive light, anything, however remote, that might suggest she hasn’t achieved that goal puts her in a flat spin. So specific was her goal that all her concentration was focussed on this one objective, she becomes detached from the real world and those around her. Her boss is an untouchable deity, a celebrity with which she has developed an almost personal relationship with through her single objective. To fail is to let him down. You wonder what would happen if businesses were run on normal human emotions and relationships.


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